The Language We Speak

Recently during a consulting session with one of our mining clients, the leader I was speaking to shared that he had been struggling to convince one of his seniors to reconsider a policy that is in place that is affecting their ability to be productive.  In some ways he felt that his senior was being unreasonable and stubborn, and as a result his efforts, in spite of his desire to improve the organization, were being wasted. 

I’m certain that from time to time we have all felt this, whether we were dealing with someone above or below us.

After listening carefully to all that he was sharing it became apparent that the real issue in play was not so much that either of them was being difficult or irrational, but rather that they were simply misunderstanding one another, and the origin of this misunderstanding was the language they were speaking.

Now, in South Africa, we have 11 official languages spread over 60 million people from culturally diverse ethnic groups – but none of these languages are the language that I am referring to today.

Let me explain:

Both these gentlemen have a good command of the English language.  I’m certain that where necessary, they are able to communicate in some other languages including Zulu, Sotho and Afrikaans.  Such is the nature and need in the mining environment.

The language that this more junior leader was speaking was the language of output and production, while his senior communicated primarily in the language of cost and accounting.  Perhaps you might feel that these are so interconnected that there couldn’t possibly be a misunderstanding, but if you examine successful connections a little closer these connection points are in fact only there as a result of one or other language spoken by both parties simultaneously.

My suggestion to him, because his senior is so finance focused, was that he prepare a document outlining the costs that will be saved if using a different system – it was that he should keep his production speak to a minimum and rather communicate the change of policy in the language of economics and cost/profit.

I will see whether he has done this or not when I see him again.

Still in the mining industry, it came to my attention a week or so ago that there have been a mine or two that have attempted to further spread the wealth and profits enjoyed by shareholders and others invested in these ventures.  They did this by issuing shares to all the lower level labour force.  This was a massive step in the right direction in terms of equalizing the earnings gap.

This happened a little while before the 2008 financial disaster that sent many industries reeling and so many businesses into liquidation.  So, when the crisis hit, the value of their stock was hit as well.  The writer of the article I read went on to say that the majority of these workers were illiterate or had very little schooling.  As a result, they were unable to comprehend what had happened to the ‘money’ they understood they had received, and eventually it all became ugly when they turned on the man that had been there to facilitate the distribution of the shares, accusing him of stealing their money.  The whole project fell apart shortly thereafter.

Why did this happen?  How could such a well intended initiative backfire so badly?  

A fair bit has to do with bad timing and rotten luck.  We all suffered during that period, and continue to see and feel the effects.  But a large portion of the issue was the fact that they were not communicating in a language that could be mutually understood.  How can an illiterate person possibly understand the association between stock or shares and the paper stuff they are given at the end of each month?  How could they understand that the R100 they had been given yesterday was worth only R10 today as a result of something that may have taken place 10 000km from where they live? 

As generous as the initiative was, the final nail in the coffin was forged in the furnace of misaligned understanding as a result of the language in which they communicated. 

So the question we need to ask ourselves is:  what language do I communicate in when trying to lead or move my people?

Let’s now change the angle a little:

On occasion, I have received feedback from individuals who feel that I write in a manner that sometimes feels too simple.  As one compares some of what I may write with other analysts appearing in or associated with other large media platforms, this may certainly be true. 

I do tend to steer away from jargon and the lingua franca used by many others when leadership is discussed, but there is a reason I do so: 

Leonardo Da Vinci is quoted saying “Simplicity is the highest form of sophistication”.  Additionally: “It is true intelligence for a man to take a subject that is mysterious and great in itself, and to unfold and simplify it so that a child can understand it.” – John Taylor.  Albert Einstein reportedly said: “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”  A final quote from a very wise unknown goes: “We must teach not so that a child can understand, but so that he or she cannot misunderstand.”

Am I implying that the reader is a child? Obviously not.  Rather that our ability to communicate anything effectively is often clouded by too many words that are in actuality not needed.

A leadership imperative when moving people successfully is one’s ability to establish common ground and understanding across lines that would ordinarily divide.  These lines would typically include race, gender, socio-economic levels, education, one’s exposure to life and experiences, and personality differences.

We bridge these divides by speaking the same language as the other.  If you want to communicate an idea, do it in a manner that others can relate to and make sense of.  For some it is the language of maths and economics, for others it may be art and music, and for others it is sport and movies. Whatever the manner if we want to communicate successfully, we must speak their language. 

Furthermore Alfonso Lopez, an international organizational consultant and trainer, and former organizational development instructor at the University of Texas, refers to all of us as DUC – we are all Different, Unique and Complex.  Each one of us has a unique background.  And each one of us, although perhaps communicating in the same dialect, speaks an entirely different language as a result of our DUC lives. 

Communication with DUC people is hard enough as it is, why would you want to make it even more difficult by throwing in words, phrases, and jargon that may make no sense, or potentially mean something different, to the people you are trying to share that very important something with?

Effective communication can be defined as “the creation of a common understanding of ideas, desires and observations among people.”, and if communication is a leadership imperative, then as leaders we need to make sure we are speaking the right language.

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Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




Founder of Future CEOs™ and co-host of the Future CEOs™ show on, Gareth seeks to empower high potential young executives and ambitious entrepreneurs as they push for CEO status.

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